Under-the-radar Alabama commit adjusting to life as elite recruit
Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge was first national showcase for OL Grant Hill
Alabama saw something in Hill, who thought his future was in track and field
After recovering from fractured vertebrae, Hill is rising up recruiting boards
ATLANTA -- When Alabama coach Nick Saban offered the scholarship this past fall, two questions zipped through Huntsville (Ala.) High offensive lineman Grant Hill's mind.
Unlike most of the players Alabama offers, Hill wasn't a fixture on the camp circuit. His mailbox didn't overflow with letters from football programs. Hill spent his summers throwing the discus, and he figured that event would earn him a scholarship and might take him all the way to the Olympics. He knew he was good at football, but he was only a little more than a year removed from being stuck in a body cast thanks to a serious back injury. He didn't think one of the nation's top programs would be interested.
"I never imagined that I'd be playing Alabama football," Hill said Sunday, "or going up against the best of the country."
As Hill spoke Sunday, he waved his hand behind him. There, several dozen of the nation's best linemen waited their turns for one-one-pass protection drills at the inaugural Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge. There were fellow offensive linemen Jake Raulerson (committed to Texas) and Josh Boutte (committed to LSU). Waiting to take them on were star defenders such as Kenny Bigelow (committed to USC) and Da'Shawn Hand, the Virginian who might wind up the No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2014. Unlike most of the players at camp, Hill hadn't ever tested himself against elite players from across the country. That didn't stop the 6-foot-6, 300-pounder from turning in one of the best performances at the camp. "I wasn't really nervous," said Hill, who was named after the basketball player. "It's just great to get out here and see good competition."
Prior to this past weekend, Hill's lone football camp experiences came with his high school teammates at Tennessee-Chattanooga's camp and at a line camp at Alabama. He certainly hadn't seen a defensive end as fast as Carl Lawson, the 6-2, 253-pound five-star prospect from Alpharetta, Ga., who provided Hill's favorite challenge of the weekend. In fact, Hill showed his naiveté of the recruiting world when discussing Lawson. "Who is he playing for?" Hill asked. "I don't know." If all goes as planned for both players, Hill will see a lot of Lawson in the future. Lawson is committed to Auburn.
Though Hill has only begun working his way up the star ranking system in football, he has been track and field's version of a five-star for years. In August 2009, Hill set a Junior Olympic record for his age group with a throw of 189 feet, 1 inch. He has won five AAU national titles in the discus. Hill's father, Brad, who threw the discus at Murray State, figured Grant's college decision would come down to Arkansas, LSU or Tennessee. All those programs regularly compete for national titles in men's track and field. The notion that football would pay for Grant's schooling came as a complete surprise.
It was especially surprising given the setback Grant faced early in high school. In May 2010, doctors diagnosed him with a stress fracture in one of his vertebrae. "It was a constant pain," Hill said. "Whenever I would do something wrong, it would hurt." The only solution, Hill learned, was a plaster cast that covered his entire torso. He tried not dwell on fears that the injury might keep him from competing at an elite level again. Mostly, Hill's thoughts were consumed by his hatred for the cast, which he wore from May to September -- the peak of Alabama's sweaty season. "It sucked, in a nutshell," Hill said. "They wouldn't let me do sprints. They wouldn't let me lift weights. They wouldn't even let me do upper body. I gained like 30 pounds."
When the cast came off, Hill -- then a sophomore entering his second year as a starter in football -- weighed 365 pounds. He despised the way he looked, and he despised the way he moved. He eliminated all snacks, and drank only water with the occasional Gatorade during especially grueling workouts with former Southern Miss star Eric Scott. While Hill was starting to slim down, colleges had begun courting his teammate, linebacker Cameron Toney. Several recruiting service reporters went to Huntsville to scout Toney during a game in 2010, and they came away equally impressed with Huntsville's massive sophomore offensive lineman. Word trickled back to the Alabama coaching staff, and Hill's game video found its way to Tuscaloosa.
Early in the 2011 season, Hill and his parents visited Bryant-Denny Stadium for a game. There, they met with Saban, who stunned them all when he offered Hill a scholarship. When word leaked that Alabama had unearthed an unrecruited gem, other schools quickly picked up their recruitment of Hill. He began hearing from Auburn, Florida, LSU and others. By February, Hill had made up his mind. He couldn't pass up a scholarship to a program 100 miles from his home that had won two national titles in three seasons. After receiving assurances from the Alabama coaching staff that he would be allowed to throw the discus for the Crimson Tide track team, Hill committed.
This past weekend only served to reinforce the fact that Alabama coaches saw something special in the game film of a player who never envisioned he would be in this position. Only a few months after learning he had a future in football, Hill has adjusted well to life as an elite recruit. "Ever since colleges started looking at me for football, I figured that's the big stage," Hill said. "That's the king of the South."